"Which is why," Lady Danbury continued, a shrewd look in her eye, "it can't be her."
"Well, that," Penelope said with a touch of sarcasm, "and the fact that Felicity and I could tell you for certain that it's not her."
"Pish. If your mother were Lady Whistledown, she'd have figured out a way to keep it from you."
"My mother?" Felicity said doubtfully. "I don't think so."
"What I am trying to say," Lady Danbury ground out, "prior to all of these infernal interruptions—"
Penelope thought she heard Eloise snort.
"—was that if Lady Whistledown were someone obvious, she'd have been found out by now, don't you think?"
Silence, until it became clear some response was required, then all three of them nodded with appropriate thoughtful-ness and vigor.
"She must be someone that nobody suspects," Lady Danbury said. "She has to be."
Penelope found herself nodding again. Lady Danbury did make sense, in a strange sort of way.
"Which is why," the older lady continued triumphantly, "I am not a likely candidate!"
Penelope blinked, not quite following the logic. "I beg your pardon?"
"Oh, please." Lady Danbury gave Penelope quite the most disdainful glance. "Do you think you're the first person to suspect me?"
Penelope just shook her head. "I still think it's you."
That earned her a measure of respect. Lady Danbury nodded approvingly as she said, "You're cheekier than you look."
Felicity leaned forward and said in a rather conspiratorial voice, "It's true."
Penelope swatted her sister's hand. "Felicity!"
"I think the musicale is starting," Eloise said.
"Heaven help us all," Lady Danbury announced. "I don't know why I—Mr. Bridgerton!"
Penelope had turned to face the small stage area, but she whipped back around to see Colin making his way along the row to the empty seat beside Lady Danbury, apologizing good-naturedly as he bumped into people's knees.
His apologies, of course, were accompanied by one of his lethal smiles, and no fewer than three ladies positively melted in their seats as a result.
Penelope frowned. It was disgusting.
"Penelope," Felicity whispered. "Did you just growl?"
"Colin," Eloise said. "I didn't know you were coming."
He shrugged, his face alight with a lopsided grin. "Changed my mind at the last moment. I've always been a great lover of music, after all."
"Which would explain your presence here," Eloise said in an exceptionally dry voice.
Colin acknowledged her statement with nothing more than an arch of his brow before turning to Penelope and saying,
Good evening, Miss Featherington." He nodded at Felicity with another, "Miss Featherington."
It took Penelope a moment to find her voice. They had parted most awkwardly that afternoon, and now here he was with a friendly smile. "Good evening, Mr. Bridgerton," she finally managed.
"Does anyone know what is on the program tonight?" he asked, looking terribly interested.
Penelope had to admire that. Colin had a way of looking at you as if nothing in the world could be more interesting than your next sentence. It was a talent, that. Especially now, when they all knew that he couldn't possibly care one way or another what the Smythe-Smith girls chose to play that evening.
"I believe it's Mozart," Felicity said. "They almost always choose Mozart."
"Lovely," Colin replied, leaning back in his chair as if he'd just finished an excellent meal. "I'm a great fan of Mr. Mozart."
"In that case," Lady Danbury cackled, elbowing him in the ribs, "you might want to make your escape while the possibility still exists."
"Don't be silly," he said. "I'm sure the girls will do their best."
"Oh, there's no question of them doing their best," Eloise said ominously.
"Shhh," Penelope said. "I think they're ready to begin." Not, she admitted to herself, that she was especially eager to listen to the Smythe-Smith version of Eine Kleine Nacht-musik. But she felt profoundly ill-at-ease with Colin. She wasn't sure what to say to him—except that whatever it was she should say definitely shouldn't be said in front of Eloise, Felicity, and most of all Lady Danbury.
A butler came around and snuffed out a few candles to signal that the girls were ready to begin. Penelope braced herself, swallowed in such a way as to clog her inner ear canals (it didn't work), and then the torture began. And went on ... and on ... and on. Penelope wasn't certain what was more agonizing—the music or the knowledge that Colin was sitting right behind her. The back of her neck prickled with awareness, and she found herself fidgeting like mad, her fingers tapping relentlessly on the dark blue velvet of her skirts.
When the Smythe-Smith quartet was finally done, three of the girls were beaming at the polite applause, and the fourth— the cellist—looked as if she wanted to crawl under a rock.
Penelope sighed. At least she, in all of her unsuccessful seasons, hadn't ever been forced to parade her deficiencies before all the ton like these girls had. She'd always been allowed to melt into the shadows, to hover quietly at the perimeter of the room, watching the other girls take their turns on the dance floor. Oh, her mother dragged her here and there, trying to place her in the path of some eligible gentleman or another, but that was nothing—nothing!—like what the Smythe-Smith girls were forced to endure.
Although, in all honesty, three out of the four seemed blissfully unaware of their musical ineptitude. Penelope just smiled and clapped. She certainly wasn't going to burst their collective bubble.
And if Lady Danbury's theory was correct, Lady Whistledown wasn't going to write a word about the musicale.
The applause petered out rather quickly, and soon everyone was milling about, making polite conversation with their neighbors and eyeing the sparsely laid refreshment table at the back of the room.
"Lemonade," Penelope murmured to herself. Perfect. She was dreadfully hot—really, what had she been thinking, wearing velvet on such a warm night?—and a cool beverage would be just the thing to make her feel better. Not to mention that Colin was trapped in conversation with Lady Danbury, so it was the ideal time to make her escape.
But as soon as Penelope had her glass in hand, she heard Colin's achingly familiar voice behind her, murmuring her name.
She turned around, and before she had any idea what she was doing, she said, "I'm sorry."
"Yes," she assured him. "At least I think I am."
His eyes crinkled slightly at the comers. "The conversation grows more intriguing by the second."
He held out his arm. "Take a turn with me around the room, will you?"
"I don't think—"
He moved his arm closer to her—just by an inch or so, but the message was clear. "Please," he said.
She nodded and set her lemonade down. "Very well."
They walked in silence for almost a minute, then Colin said, "I would like to apologize to you."
"I was the one who stormed out of the room," Penelope pointed out.
He tilted his head slightly, and she could see an indulgent smile playing across his lips. "I'd hardly call it 'storming,'" he said.
Penelope frowned. She probably shouldn't have left in such a huff, but now that she had, she was oddly proud of it. It wasn't every day that a woman such as herself got to make such a dramatic exit.
"Well, I shouldn't have been so rude," she muttered, by now not really meaning it.
He arched a brow, then obviously decided not to pursue the matter. "I would like to apologize," he said, "for being such a whiny little brat."
Penelope actually tripped over her feet. He helped her regain her balance, then said, "I am aware that I have many, many things in my life for which I should be grateful. For which I am grateful," he corrected, his mouth not quite smiling but certainly sheepish. "It was unforgivably rude to complain to you."
"No," she said, "I have spent all ev
ening thinking about what you said, and while I..." She swallowed, then licked her lips, which had gone quite dry. She'd spent all day trying to think of the right words, and she'd thought that she'd found them, but now that he was here, at her side, she couldn't think of a deuced thing.
"Do you need another glass of lemonade?" Colin asked politely.
She shook her head. "You have every right to your feelings," she blurted out. "They may not be what I would feel, were I in your shoes, but you have every right to them. But—"
She broke off, and Colin found himself rather desperate to know what she'd planned to say. "But what, Penelope?" he urged.
"It's not nothing to me." His hand was on her arm, and so he squeezed slightly, to let her know that he meant what he said.
For the longest time, he didn't think she was actually going to respond, and then, just when he thought his face would crack from the smile he held so carefully on his lips—they were in public, after all, and it wouldn't do to invite comment and speculation by appearing urgent and disturbed—she sighed.
It was a lovely sound, strangely comforting, soft, and wise. And it made him want to look at her more closely, to see into her mind, to hear the rhythms of her soul.
"Colin," Penelope said quietly, "if you feel frustrated by your current situation, you should do something to change it. It's really that simple."
"That's what I do," he said with a careless shrug of his outside shoulder. "My mother accuses me of picking up and leaving the country completely on whim, but the truth is—"
"You do it when you're feeling frustrated," she finished for him.
He nodded. She understood him. He wasn't sure how it had happened, or even that it made any sense, but Penelope Featherington understood him.
"I think you should publish your journals," she said.